Filipino Box Spring Hog: A Story from my Tom Waits’ Project

Lose yourself in the crowd, he was told. Move around amongst the people like you belong, and never worry about where you parked the car. Carry your plate with your left hand, a drink tucked under your arm, and shake hands with the old ones, nod to the young, dance when dancing is called for, and never worry about where you parked the car.

He could have placed the advice to music, set the notes amongst the words like ants climbing a pole, but caught in the middle of the heaving crowd he felt like a tree in a waterlogged forest in the wind, the ground heaving with each gust, and the earthquake unsettling feeling like the whole thing was going to blow.

He reached out to Uncle Filbert and Slaughterhouse Joe, only to find one hand missing and the other in a sling, knelt well-wishes to Aunt Mame, and her curses rang in his ears. Little Ernst swung from his back like a monkey, Sadie went through his pockets for change, and on her fifth marriage Eleanor leaned like a snake on a table covered with contracts, the man she’d come with searching for a pen. The three identiticals ran through their legs like a storm, surging back and forth until the dogs got tired, and Corn-liquor Mick toasted the moon with a bottle, saying that no knew for sure what had been done. He balanced his plate on a glass, pulled a fork from a pocket, but the bite on its way to his mouth was waylaid by Sharon yanking his sleeve toward her son-in-law, pulled out his lower lip like a horse and showing him the teeth that were still in hock to the bank.

There were car accidents and miscarriages, whispered secrets like haunted castles in the rain, while around them poured beer and whiskey sours. Men gathered by the ditch for a smoke and the women lined up a chorus, kids tipped the punch bowl into the grass and slid down the slope on dinner trays. His plate was snatched by blind cousin Ron, who reeled back into the party, and like a flute-driven cobra, turned sideways and was gone. He sent a kid for a platter and accepted the cake when it came, but then his cuff was pulled to Granny Thomas, as sharp as a fox on the scent of blood and arthritic as a cane. She smelled the air and declared, but her words were lost in the accordion and the drums.

Pulled to the crowd by the strings on a guitar, he licked away the frosting from the corner of his mouth and twanged and twirled, dervish at play in the fields of the loud. The amp was broken so it only worked on high, the conversation faltered and then it died, until the police called him down from the roof where he was pointing to the sky, for he thought he’d seen a bird and it went that-a-way. They roused a ladder from the back of a Chevy van that someone had left outside the neighbour’s garage, plucked the guitar from his hand and helped him jump into the pool, and to the clamour of the feast he jumped to the deep end and ended up in the shallow clutching a bottle of half champagne and chlorine.

About half-nine the cops had drunk enough, and they set their sirens blaring to drive home safe, leaving the neighbours to twitch windows or come out to join the crowd trying to roll manhole covers down the street into the bank. The little ones were tired by the time the ambulance was called, and Granny Ambrose withered her hand into the wind; there’s a bad spell a coming, she told anyone who spoke Spanish, and it’s going to wrap up this family in a skin. Slaughterhouse Joe brought the violin out from hiding, pulled a chair up to the fire and began to saw, and when he saw the cello come out of Sinner’s truck, he put his back in a spasm and screeched out a duet. The cello lifted over the plates and sent shivers along the tangled row of backbones and spines, trembled the liquid in the glasses and trembled the grasses on the lawn, until the kids were settling in and drinks were spilled and cake was lost. Blankets were found and couples turned out from the tents, the kids were bedded down with the dogs, someone brought out some cards and they played for gin and underwear, until everyone was down to their shorts.

He jerked awake in a tangle of cords, having passed out while plugging in the fairy lights over the pool. He pulled the switch on the breaker, waved the sparks away with a paper plate, and gasps by the fence showed light through the gaps. Once he stumbled over the bricks someone had thrown in from the gate, he was caught by at least a hundred hands. They pulled him to his feet, brushed down his suitcoat and tipped back a glass, and introduced him to Filbert and Sophie, shoved a baby in his lap and took a picture, had him sign a book he’d never read.

It was just getting going by the second time the cops showed, and they never stood a chance. They tumbled out of the cars like kittens, and were tossed from hand to hand like knives. A dozen spilled drinks, some weed by the fence, groping under the stars where only god could judge, and they were down to their underpants and calling for their wives. They were stamping out a song on the sidewalk by the road when the ambulance tucked them into stretchers and hauled away their cars, and the sirens faded into the distance as the wine glasses were plucked and shrilled into high notes by someone’s cousin who had learned in the college dorm how to make singing from an edge.

At four in the morning the grandmothers were sleep, tucked into the DeSotos and Studebakers of their mind, the kids were wrapped as tight as a sandwich in a shop, and Tom was reeling from the curtain dragged over the panic in the hall. He put hands to plates like the rest, and helped put out the fire by the hedge. Found a back bedroom with not too many people on the bed, and when he woke it he fumbled for the keys. He collected the kids from the tents in the yard, and threw the spare blankets over the seats. His wife was talking with the daughter of a man in a porkpie, and he gathered her up like a bride.

They left in style, just like they’d just broke the bank, trailing toilet paper pranks from the trunk, just married was written all over their nearly-paid-off car, and the kids were waking up in the back. Some were for going home and others needed a snack, but they all agreed the house had been hung with tinsel and lit up like a tree. They not eat until Christmas, and they’d never wash the smell of party from their skin.

From: Tom Waits’ Music to Stories Series

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The Walmart Generation

My ex-girlfriend’s mother was a member of the Walmart generation, and when I first met her she showed us around the house. Part of this tour meant that she pointed out the new coffee table. I realize now that it was meant to complement the matching drapes, but I didn’t know her, so I mistakenly assumed that somehow—despite living for years in the house—they had never owned a coffee table.

She was outraged by the suggestion, and declared that of course they had owned one. More confused than ever, I asked her what happened to it. I could not imagine that someone could break a coffee table. She told me they had kept it in the garage. Only then did I belatedly realize that she was from the Walmart generation, and therefore discarded and purchased furniture as easily as one might change their socks. It was too late then, she felt judged by a rabid environmentalist, and nothing I could say would ever change her opinion.

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Maybe the Algorithms are Working Against Us

Most news, internet search, and social media platforms have optimized their offerings to suit what their viewers most frequently choose to see. That makes sense in terms of ad dollars, for they want to have a targetable demographic, but as we have learned from similar capitalist reasoning, what is best for the market is not always best for society.

Every time there is a mass shooting in the United States, there is much breast-beating about the identity of the shooter. Then, inevitably, it is reported that the gunman—the gender assignation is deliberate—is a white man whose white supremacist ideals encourages him to hate gay people, Jews, Blacks, human rights, Muslims, or any other group that he can easily target despite his general lack of education. Usually that discovery brings about a wave of news stories about how we are living in social media echo chambers, and that the great mass of people are getting their ideas about the world, their news even, from posts that their friends send them on Facebook or Twitter. This echo chamber means that they only see olds, and that anything which is news is invisible because they have never expressed an interest in such material in the past.

A search for “social media echo chamber” on Google Scholar—another echo chamber in its own corporate right—returns seventy-nine results, and many more pundits and more serious media watchdogs and analysts have written articles which are not included in that list. The phenomenon is well known, but as a culture we don’t see an easy way out of such a conundrum. That is partially because we have a policy to let corporations do what they want.

Historically, newspapers were organs of corporate interests similar to modern social media sites, and many argue that is still the case in the corporate media, but the small town papers and radio usually compensated for the worst of that myopia. Now social media platforms reach vast numbers of people, and even without deliberate tinkering with what people see—such as targeted ads from those who have bought the advertising space and other nations interfering with what the citizens in their crosshairs learn about the world—such platforms wield immense power over the development of the culture.

The social media echo chamber operates like a kind of secular religious indoctrination, and its effect on education is similar. Religion is a kind of virus—in that it is easily transmittable and generally interferes with the full functioning of the person—but its effect is generally limited to one aspect of a person’s life. Educational material is a different matter, which is why the churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples in many countries are so eager to take over their school curriculums. They are well aware that if they can control the educational system then can control what people think. Now that social media platforms have become so ubiquitous, they have even more widespread power. Just as our education system is failing, self-education through the internet is stepping in to fill the gap, but the generally uninformed populace—whose notion of critical thinking is whether the view agrees with their own—is easily led by the echo chambers they are trapped inside.

Although the way out of this conundrum doesn’t seem possible, I would caution us to step farther back from our hands-off way of interacting with corporations and to return to an earlier notion of education. Although there are those who want to control the education system because that means social control, a general education, as it was first envisioned—and we can see some of those ideals discussed in H. G. Wells’ World Brain—were about giving the citizen verified information about the world in order that they could contribute to society as a whole. The traditional notion of education wasn’t about leading the citizen to information in order to earn money from their interest. That is why we must ask the social media platforms to become better citizens and stop thinking only of their bottom line. Although it goes against their mandate, they must consider that they have—rather inadvertently—taken over the education of the citizenry, and that such a responsibility cannot operate on the basis of mere mercenary concerns about profit.

They must begin—and I think this will have to happen slowly at first—to modify their algorithms so that people see posts from outside their stated interests. The elder who is interested in Alzheimer’s research should also be learning about video games for kindergarteners, and the right-wing nationalist should learn about the rest of the world. The Justin Bieber fan should be subject to Tom Waits links, and the ballerina should sit through some Mongolian throat singing. These modifications of the algorithms should be done slowly, at first, so that those more closed communities don’t at first realize that they are being educated, but as their horizons expand, they should learn more and more. This will inevitably affect their ability to make a profit, but it’s worth remembering that they already earn billions of dollars. I don’t think they can avoid losing a fraction of that profit, but they can still advertise to a broader spectrum of customer or shift with the changing times. When the internet was new the corporate concerns hadn’t yet learned how to capitalize on it, but before long they realized that they could control what advertising their users saw. I have faith that the endlessly malleable nature of corporate enterprises can rise to this new challenge.

In order to transcend the echo chamber, our weakening education system, and the arbitrary corporate control over what we see, we need the social media corporations to realize that their job has shifted. They are now—whether they are prepared for it or not—in the education business, and they need to respond accordingly. They need to fight their board of directors for whom business as usual is profit at all costs, and learn to measure the greater social cost of avarice. In a society where many people are shooting their neighbours, they will quickly run out of customers, so like a virus they need to occupy the host but not kill it if they hope to have a market share in the future.

If they can make this change, the more stable future they create will help them shift to their next market. Likely, if the current trend continues, social media platforms, or some similar information delivery system is the future of instruction, and those corporations which make the shift now will be in the vanguard.

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Buy a Book or Take the Train

Perhaps my friend’s trip to the bathroom inspired our question, or maybe it was evoked by the atmosphere of the Chinese restaurant in Boston. Our lazy hypothetical possibility was more than merely passing time, although at first I don’t think any of us could have guessed that the question would provide more than a moment’s pause in a rice-filled soy-sauce day.

“What if, when you were in the bathroom, we left you in the restaurant alone? What if you came out of the bathroom and we were gone? What would you do?”

My friend’s answer to the question was unusual enough that I frequently return to it and ponder its implications. I imagined that he would call his wife immediately, tell her what happened and then arrange transport to get home. He is more than normally careless about spending, so he would have likely—it occurs to me now—rented a car and driven it home, but at the time I first thought of the train leaving from South Station that would take him directly home.

Instead of the expected answer, he told us that he would immediately return to the bookstore we have visited an hour earlier and buy a book. That is a “comfort item,” he rather insufficiently explained. After that purchase, he assured us, he would consider how to get home and think about what jerks we were for abandoning him downtown.

The random caprice of his answer surprised me, and even now I am struck by its curious illogic. By the time he had retraced his steps to the bookstore, and browsed the shelves for the comforting title he could carry, he might have missed the last train. That risk notwithstanding, he wouldn’t call about trains first, but rather would buy the book and then try to find the train station.

Perhaps many of us would make such choices, like the Polynesian settlers of Easter Island who prioritised carving the stone heads of their gods instead of thinking about their deteriorating environment, but the mute obstinacy of that act—of willfully ignoring the physical world in favour of the mental—seems like a dangerous but perhaps prevalent mental illness. If my phone call is more important than walking across the street, I will walk in front of a car and die. If the comfort of my face is more important than my eyesight I will avoid safety glasses when grinding metal, and become blind as a result.

We all make mistakes, but to throw the mental needs before the physical is to jump before a speeding train in order to rescue a flower given by a loved one. That measurement, that the flower is worth more than the life you risk in grasping for it, is to incorrectly measure the relative importance of the two items. Your lover will be happy you kept the flower, but they will be more than dismayed if you threw away your life reaching for something so inconsequential.

In the cult film Harold and Maude, Harold gives Maude a penny he has smashed in a fun-fair machine and printed with his declaration of love. She tells him that that was the best gift she has ever received, and then, to Harold’s dismay, throws it into the ocean they are sitting beside. Harold is outraged, for he immediately reads her action as a rejection of his love and the object which proves his feelings are real. She tells him that “this way I will always know where it is.” She will never lose the object if she knows it is in the water, and she will have the feelings associated with it for as long as she lives.

Maude has lived long enough to know that material items are worthless. The feelings invested in the object are much more important, but to have those you have to keep body and soul together. If you have been abandoned downtown, first make sure you can make your way home, and then, if comfort is required, seek it in a book that you buy on your way to the train station. If you buy the book first, and you are forced to spend the night in the train station because you have missed the last train by a few minutes, then the sought-for comfort might well be lost in a violent attack, hypothermia, and despair.

The most important need of the moment should be safety and then transport home. His mental self—whether he would be comfortable or not—could be taken care of later once he had satisfied those other needs. To prioritize the mental self at the expense of the body that houses it, is to endanger the entire enterprise and he might as well pick up a flint chisel and begin to shape a stone into a head.

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The Saltpeter Mines of Northern Atacama, Chile

Saltpeter, or nitrate, was a major export of Chile until artificial production began in Germany in the thirties. Then, like much of the world staggering as a result of the global depression, Chile suffered from the loss of nearly fifty percent of its resource exports. The town itself—abandoned fourteen years after it had been built—was vandalized for decades until Salvador Allende tried to have it restored.

Unfortunately, American tendencies to interfere with successful leftist governments were conspiring against him and Allende was ousted and then executed in favour of the infamous puppet dictator Pinochet. Pinochet used the town as a concentration camp for political dissidents and intellectuals. Bullet holes in the walls still testify to the people who were killed there, but before long the desert reclaimed the town and now only the ruins remain despite international efforts to maintain the buildings.

When we visited the town in the South American fall of 2017, raiding parties from the local towns were twisting the knife in the dying corpse of the town. They would come at night, the security guard told us, and bypassing both his dogs and the druglords making deals in the austerity of the desert night, they would tear the ponderosa pine boards and timbers away from the old buildings. His five dogs exist to fight against this problem, but in the winter of 2018 a dog was killed and the guard himself was shot. Local mafia are rapidly decimating the last of the remaining buildings and soon only the graveyard—which superstitious South Americans tend to avoid because of a fear of ghosts, although the graves are looted for the bones as well—will suggest that Chacabuco existed at all.

It occurred to me, looking at the walled-in nature of the town, and comparing the spacious house for the owner and the cramped cells for the workers, that Chacabuco is merely fulfilling a destiny that was inevitable from its inception. As soon as the autocratic mining town began production, the workers were exploited as much as the land from which the nitrates were unearthed. The town’s association with brutality extended quite naturally into the era of the American puppet Pinochet—despite the best efforts of Allende to preserve Chilean history. Pinochet incarcerated hundreds of political prisoners and many of them did not survive the experience, thus confirming that the town is a place for misery and opportunism.

Given its history, it is perhaps no wonder that the plains that surround the crumbling ruins seethe with druglords and distant gunfire, and that local mafia come to scavenge from the carcass of the remains. In many ways a town that began in brutality and the oppression of its workers still works within the narrow confines of that grim legacy.

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The Ego in Creative Projects

One of the central problems when dealing with a creative writer is that of their emotional investment in their work. They do not see what they have written as merely product, such as a snail and their shell, but rather can become quite impassioned when criticism is leveled at their baby. Part of this vociferous defensiveness lies in a misunderstanding of what creative work is, and we can blame the English Romantics for this notion of the tormented artist, as well as a general lack of understanding of writing as a craft.

The emotional connection that a writer has to their work is difficult to discuss. Every statement which is not gushing praise reads like a knife to the chest, and every attempt to suggest a modification a hate crime. They will proclaim, their voice quavering with emotion, “But I poured out my heart on this!” For them this statement should forestall criticism. They have done their best. They have pulled their beating heart from their chest and then squeezed it over the page. What reader could not taste the richness of their blood? Who are you to attempt to correct my emotional state? Who are you to say my story is poorly constructed when it perfectly represents my inner turmoil?

If we accept their premise, then they are correct to claim that no one should gainsay their efforts. The premise needs to be examined, however, before we can accept it as easily as the writer makes their impassioned defense. The notion that lies behind their statement “But I poured out my heart on this!” is that their work is an exhibition of the suffering artist’s torment delivered onto paper, at least in the case of the writer. For them, the artist knows instinctually what is required. Their inner turmoil is the pen, the paper, and the hand that writes. The audience should be able to read their words and peer into the maelstrom that is their emotional self.

This pernicious notion first enters English letters with the Romantics. William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, William Wordsworth, John Keats and company can be seen as using their work to siphon their emotional state onto the page. “The immortal spirit grows like harmony in music” Wordsworth tells us, but such bombast must have some reasoning behind it. Through them—with perhaps the exception of Coleridge and Blake who were very aware of the craft of writing—we inherit an idea of the tortured artist. The emotional state becomes the most important aspect to art and suddenly the notion of gradually refining the craft becomes alien.

This notion persists into modern day, and we can hear people talk about suffering from “writer’s block,” losing their inspiration, regurgitating their mental state onto the page, and how the story came to them in a dream in its final form. They speak of writing as if they were talking about channeling spirits, as if their dexterity with language were not responsible when their hands moved across the page. Once we overturn the notion of the muse or divine inspiration, however, writer’s block is not a possibility, except perhaps for those in the late stages of dementia.

The heart that is to blame for the words on the page is only one aspect of the craft of writing, and that is implicit in their statement about “pouring” out their heart. They are focusing overmuch on the least competent aspect of a writer: their emotional state. In fact, the way in which the heart gets onto the page, the action of pouring, is much more responsible for the final product.

Their emotional reaction to criticism is a reaction to an attack on their personality, but in fact the reader is seldom interested in whatever aspect of the author’s overwrought nature that inspired them to get the words on the page. The reader cares more about the only aspect of the pouring that they have access too, which is the textual artifact. And pouring, like anything we do that affects change in the world around us, is a craft. The reader questioning the choices a writer makes is rarely concerned with their personality. Instead, they are questioning their ability to pour. The critic is pointing out the shaky hand that spilled wine on the table. They are interested in the writer’s decision to lift the spout until the liquid splashes into the cup, and how they pour too little or too much at a time so that wine either froths or the drinker must wait long moments for their glass to be full.

The focus on the ego of the writer means that they are presuming that the delivery of the heart doesn’t matter, but rather the fact that they have a heart and are talking about it is sufficient. In fact, as most writers know, the craft takes many years to learn and perfect. Some people seem to have more or less gift—just as the contestants on talent shows seem to be great singers at a young age—but behind every public performance are many a thousand hours of practice and gradual perfection of the craft.

When facing criticism, the writer needs to examine their story more carefully. Did they choose its best method of delivery? If they were to change their narrator, would the story evoke their emotional state more accurately, or if they cut the sentences with too many subordinate clauses into several shorter sentences, would the reader feel the implicit speed or would they be distracted by such obvious artifice?

Everyone has a heart they would like to have read by others, but writers are those who can take that emotional content and package it in a way that evokes the feelings they desire in their readers. Learning how to manipulate packaging is a long and tortuous procedure which involves pouring the heart again and again until it has been dumped on the page so many times it appears as a thick puree. Just as anyone who has learned to pour from a bottle has learned, syrup moves differently than vinegar, and a jug works differently than a pitcher. Each liquid demands its own container and art of pouring, and mere excitement about pouring is not enough to ensure that everyone gets a drink in their glass.

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Goin’ Down Slow: A Commentary on Time from my book on Tom Waits’ Songs

Some nights lasted forever, the bands of time stretching out like the taffy from cold molasses, rich and dark and thin without ever seeming to break on the shoals of morning until they were invisible to the eye. Such nights were impossible to identify from the early mornings, they only began to surface once the water was up to the crotch and rising. By midafternoon each day was like another, a long string of beads that had an end but was pulled from a bag of tomorrows so you never knew until the last bead escaped. The early evening’s liquid embrace of the heat of afternoon turned to frantic energy gave no clue as well. Only once the clock was climbing the slow-motion mountain of the night did the dark proclaim itself, and he knew he was back in another massy place where time was Einstein-slow and Schrödinger-uncertain.

This was one of those nights. He’d waited through the day as though for a dentist appointment, the vague pain of normal life pulling at his jaw, but as the dark began to creep over the city, coming first from the mountains and then along the flat land and finally rising from the sea, he began to suspect the minute hands of slowing, pulling themselves only reluctantly past each hour’s marker. The second hand too, was sweeping more quickly at first, but as reluctant as glue on a windowpane, caught in the jelly of the impending weight, it crept forward, its rapid jerk turned to anxious thrusts.

It might have been the lack of waves offshore. That would sometimes slow the entire city to a crawl. Or perhaps the drifting clouds, that would normally be driven back and forth by the tug and pull of land breeze and sea. Sometimes he even wondered if he were the one, somehow unravelling the ballet of normal living until the legs arched and the toes uncurled and left the body behind. He’d seen nights like this one before, and sometimes he’d sought to escape into sleep. He’d feel the slowdown around midnight, like Bangkok rush hour caught by the sticky heat of the King’s anthem and therefore commanded to a crawl. Once he slept his dreams would chase him from theme to denouement, each demanding and suggesting, until in the journey through the night he’d only slept an hour or so, his body and mind so active that he’d had to rein them back just to get out of bed.

Nights like these it was best to ride it out. Like the first time user on mushrooms, he was going to let the flow take him, and if it stalled in the gutter or the food tray at the movie theatre, or a drunk tank, that’s where he’d wait out the endless night.

When he would try to explain the dripping of the minutes to a friend, they would nod as if they knew and offer advice about women or cutting down on the booze. Strangers in bars, more honestly, recoiled, and he’d learned to judge people he didn’t know by whether they felt the same phenomena. He approached them on an angle, like sneaking up on a chicken. But instead of reaching out in a leap to throttle them into knowledge, he’d suggest the clock was out of sync. If the look of recognition came he knew he’d found a companion for the endless hours, some haunted look that sought the same when the minutes were on the rack of hours and the hours had been tortured into days.

Then they would say no more about it, and instead set their teeth to endure, hands clamped to the bar for safety as the thick tar of time flowed around them, rising to the knees and over, dampening their trousers with a sticky residue that would be impossible to remove from the weave. They would wait while ten o’clock forced its way along the wall, a huge man pushing past them on the sidewalk for the bus, and then settled in for the fight as eleven peeked over the edge of the hour and then, as slowly as a foot-long cockroach in the gloom, approached in the dark. Once eleven was underway, twelve seemed to arrive more quickly. Only a day or two would pass as the barkeep took hours to trickle a drink into a glass, and the blinks of the patrons were a drooping eyelid to close and many minutes to open.

Twelve was the hardest hour of all, for it was time’s own peak of the mountain, and nearly all clocks strained toward it. The analogs, with their sweeping hands, hesitated and they fought with twelve, unable to approach directly and sometimes failing. Most clocks died just before midnight, Tom had heard from a wizened man at a repair shop, while others had died in their glory after the hour was achieved. After twelve, he and his seatmate would usually congratulate themselves on the accomplishment, the uneven tick of the seconds dripping like a faulty faucet, by times long trickles, by times anticipation of a drop which hung under the outlet like a cloud on a cloudless day.

The night pressed in on itself after midnight, and the hours crawled by on all fours to bedroom doors, the minutes trailing from their pockets and leaving a slimy trail on the stair, the seconds left behind in someone else’s bed. By one he would have settled himself in for the voyage. It was never easy once the crest was achieved; after that it was the descent, more dangerous than the climb. It was too easy to sprain an ankle or slip on a rock, to be hurled howling into the blank time below with a broken back and bleeding from the mouth. After one, care was demanded, and Tom had seen people who hadn’t made it past such a small sharp hour.

By two there was more space to stand, as the hours unfolded as if they were going to double their way to morning. Talk began again, water flowed more easily, and the long honey moments of one were not quite gone but had been watered past what would sell on a grocer’s shelf. Three was easy after two, and by that time the liquor helped. It forced time back into its bucket; like a pile of eels wriggling on the table, it was manageable if messy. Holding down his gorge, Tom could fight with three. It was at least something a man could get his hands on, and before long four would come, with its reminders of dawn somewhere over the mountains, and the crusty-eyed resilience demanded for journey into the day.

It wasn’t everyone who could make it through to morning on such a night, but there were shelters and diners all over the city to help them acclimatize. Usually he’d spill off the bar stool at closing and seek out an all-night, off-the-strip, jukebox at every table place until he could sort out what had been done to the timing in the songs. Four would wrench only slowly on the cap of five. Some said it was the hardest hour, although anyone who had made it past midnight had the skills, the wary sense of disdain and almost frightening prophetic insight that could make it into the watery light of morning.

It would usually take four cups of coffee to face the dawn, but once it came, some force, a gigantic boot on the horizon, would kick the day into starting and all the clocks would shudder as though released. Jumping ahead a few seconds they would reset into a more functional timescape, and sugar would spill from the paper packet in tiny grains like an hourglass, each one more rapid than the last, until the table was sanded and the server’s eyes were red.

By then Tom knew he had won, that the ruptured guts of the night had been gathered up again by unwashed hands, shoved back into the cavity and then stapled in place. When the sewing was done, the skin puckered into long folds, no one even remembered the sticky entrails spilled on the street, although they guessed the knife that did the stabbing, even if it was gone, would likely reappear.

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Las Vegas Wedding

Las Vegas was more than merely rhinestone glitter and a parade of reflected glory, more than a money-pocket for a sign and a snatching hand and booze-filled weekend pliers to the teeth. It was a place which encouraged invention. If Edison had been in Vegas he might never have found the light bulb amongst his workers in the lab. He would have spent and wasted until he was too gutshot to save, and he’d be found screaming in the desert to the mountainous west. Vegas was new songs, new stories, a place where a man cannot go too far, where excess doesn’t exist, and where degradation was merely a pair of shoes a man put on when he left another’s bed.

A few years on the strip and he’d come out changed, and although he didn’t know what direction that would take, he thought about the jaunt over the mountains into the impossible valley, the city that shouldn’t exist, a kind of cheap drive-by Shangri-La, and how he could disappear there like anyone else.

That night the crowd took on a flavour that was cinnamon-sprinkled over woodsmoke and cordite. He meandered between songs and took long breaks to talk to Moses and Emily about how he’d found a destination. He told them about what he’d gain there that he’d lost in Los Angeles on the side of the road. They listened, began to offer an opinion, and then bought him a drink.

Every song, he told the crowd later on, is either about arriving or leaving. If you spent your last dime on a phone call and the voice on the other side doesn’t want to listen, then you are writing a leaving song. If you throw down fifty on a ring and parade up to the chapel door, then you’re telling the story of an arrival, the story of a man hauled down like a side of beef from the rafters in the barn, or picking through rusted-out Cadillacs in the bright sun of a junkyard day.

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Consumer Misery in Steve Cutts’ “Happiness”

The terrible truth that Steve Cutts reveals in his short animated film “Happiness” is that consumerism entices but does not lead to happiness. His rats are surrounded by consumer messages that promise that they—even the main rat character—will be happy if he merely buys the product, but each time the rat believes in the message he is betrayed and becomes even more unhappy than ever.

The thousands of rats in Cutts’ film are surrounded by advertisements. The hordes of rats in office clothes that make up the citizens in their crowded city, are hemmed in on every side by an advertising that promises each of their products will deliver delight. Each of the rats, most importantly the main rat we follow in the film, are convinced enough by these messages that they avidly pursue each promise. Perhaps because he is trapped in a maze of billboards and ads, our leading rat follows others and buys a pile of products only to throw them away when more products are in front of him. He pushes in with his fellow rats on black Friday and then fights with his fellow shoppers until some have lost their limbs and blood covers the walls. The ads’ promise of happiness is so convincing that even this experience does not change his mind and soon he is driving a convertible until he stalls in traffic with thousands of others, his brief joy turning to morose misery as his car is vandalized and it begins to rain. The promise of happiness in the form of an alcohol ad on a billboard leads him to his next pursuit and soon he is drunken and seeking a flyer’s promise of happiness in the form of prescription medication. Once this promise is broken, he is destitute but still pursuing the consumer promise of a hundred dollar bill which takes him to a factory workplace where he is trapped by his wish for money enough to endure the misery of his job.

As the litany of the rats’ attempt to pursue happiness implies, each time he tries to fulfill the promise offered, he is betrayed by the ultimate emptiness of the promise. He believes consumerism will lead him to enjoyment, but he merely ends biting his fellow rats over a big screen television. He believes that the car will offer him the freedom and success of the car ads, but the traffic of the city defeats that possibility and the liquor he embraces as the film nears its end merely symbolizes his desperation. The cycle of consumerism and misery the rat is confined by is symbolized by the images of entrapment, such as the maze of ads, the claustrophobia of the commuter train, the anger of the confining angry crowds on black Friday, but the rats’ misery becomes more apparent when he resorts to alcohol and ultimately drugs. The prescription medications, we learn in the film, do not remove the cause of his misery, but rather mask it with yet another portrayal of happiness: the Disney castle of fantasy. This fantasy does not endure, and before long the rat falls into the street with other destitute rats. There a chance hundred dollar bill, with its similar promise of ultimate happiness, leads him to the terrible image of an office job. The rat trap clamps down on his neck as he reaches for money and his unending misery—which has been implied by his pursuit of consumer goods—is assured as he types with a million others.

Although Cutts’ rat seems to be happy enough as the film starts—in that he is free to pursue what he wishes—his chase after the consumer goods from the ads which promise happiness merely ensures that he will be trapped chasing after money and the trash that money can buy. Ultimately, he is as trapped as all the other rats in a cycle of buying, throwing away, and suffering for money. Although Cutts does not offer an alternative to the promised lifestyle of our society, his unflinching portrayal does little to make rampant consumerism look inviting. Instead he offers the argument that consumerism is a trap into which we willingly walk and will lead us to misery.

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Losing the Brakes

I was in rush hour traffic outside Lévis, Quebec recently when the driver in front of me slammed on his or her brakes. I knew I had a weak brake line but I found out exactly how corroded it was when I pressed my brake pedal, the car slowed, and then the pedal dropped to the floor and I knew my brakes were gone.

I was saved by a few things. I never tailgate, and I always drive slower than the drivers around me. My lack of trust for the behaviour of those in front of me was more than helpful this time, and I was able to cut the wheel to the right and steer onto the breakdown lane long before I would have impacted the car in front of me.

Once I was in the breakdown lane and driving slowly in third gear with my hazard lights on, I’m sure more than a few of those caught in traffic beside me watched me pass with envy. They no doubt thought I was cheating the system, and using the breakdown lane to my advantage. I was ready for a cop to question me though, for I would merely point out that I had no brakes at all apart from the emergency brake.

Once I was leaving on the first off-ramp, I watched the light at the end of the lane warily. When it suddenly changed colour, I pulled up the emergency brake and the rear tires squealed me to a stop. The woman behind me honked and then gestured that I had accidentally left my emergency lights flashing and I waved to acknowledge that I was aware. Directly across from the intersection was a parking lot for a local pub, so I pulled into an empty part of the parking lot and pulled up the hood. At first the telltale oily mixture that is brake fluid was invisible to me in the undercoated engine compartment, but I knew only one brake line could be responsible. All of the other metal lines had been replaced; it could have been a flex hose to the individual wheels that went, but they rupture more rarely than the main lines, at least in my experience.

Once I found it was the brake line I suspected, I cut it in two with my wire cutters—I carry a full toolkit in the car as well as brake fluid—and then disconnected it from the juncture which is fed by the main brake cylinder. Then I used my pipe wrench in lieu of a hammer and bent the line back on itself and hammered it shut. After binding it with electrical tape, just in case the thousands of pounds per square inch pressure on the line caused it to expand, I reinstalled the short bend line on the juncture. That means the system as a whole is sealed again, and that I have enough braking power to at least search Lévis for a brake line.

Tentatively, I pulled out of the parking lot and went toward a major stretch of busy road indicated a more industrial section of the town. In the heavy traffic I was happy to have even three brakes, and when I pushed the brake and pulled naturally enough to the right—given that only one front brake was working—I was able to compensate by turning the wheel. I found a NAPA store but once I pulled in and exercised my poor French, I found they didn’t have a line in stock. They would be able to get it to me by the morning, they explained, but I merely asked about a Canadian tire store. Their forty dollar and a day late brake line wasn’t that inviting anyway. I followed their directions, but soon realized I had lost something in the translation.

At a gas station I had better luck, and my French was slightly more honed, to the topic at least, and before long I was in the parking lot of the Canadian Tire store. I tried French, which deteriorates very quickly to Spanish in my case, that being my stronger language, but the man in automotive parts merely asked, “Do you speak English?” Sheepishly, I continued in English, bought a thirty inch line that compared in terms of thread with the line I had brought into the store with me. This is done by pushing the threads together and looking for gaps when you hold them up to the light. Short of threading them into a hole, this is a way to ascertain that you are buying the right part. I supplemented that with a litre of brake fluid, and soon I was jacking up the front tire and removing it.

I had parked away from the main lot when I’d come in, for this very reason, for it is not strictly acceptable to work on your car in the parking lot, although it is common. I’d also parked under a tree in order to take advantage of the shade on a hot day. Once I had the tire off, and I’d cleaned and then removed the brake line from the coupling to the flex hose behind the tire, ensured the bleed valve was not rusted shut by loosening it, I bent the new line to thread it into the coupling. I wanted to loosen the part in the juncture as late as possible in the procedure so I wouldn’t bleed out too much fluid.

Threading a line is an art as well as a science. The line has to be bent so it does not make the bolt cross-thread, and that often means trying it over and over and bending it slightly while doing so. When it was installed, I bent it into the configuration it will need to go in to work around the master cylinder, and installed it as well. Then I refilled the flagging master cylinder with the brake fluid I still had—it turned out I had enough for the job after all—and then loosened the bleed valve.

The main problem with bleeding brakes is sucking air back into the bleed valve even as you get rid of air in the line. One way to do this is to keep replenishing the master cylinder and let the fluid gravity-feed through all the lines on its way to the bleed valves. I didn’t have time or inclination, so I pulled a hose from my windshield washer pump—which is conveniently located under the hood—hooked that up to the bleed valve and placed the other end in a cut off plastic water bottle. Then I pumped the brakes slowly, the fluid filled the translucent hose and its end sealed against reintroducing air by flooding the bottom of the bottle. Once there was two centimetres of fluid in the bottle, I tightened the bleed valve, put the hose back in the windshield washer system, put the tire back on, and sent a message to my friend in Montreal that I would be two hours late.

The entire fix took around two hours from the time my brakes went on the highway to being on the highway again. Most of that time was faffing about, although when I fixed the brakes I worked slowly and deliberately so that I would not make a mistake or break something else I would have to fix. Fixing a car beside the road often means you are rushed, and that is a bad headspace for a system as essential as brakes. The job took about a half hour, and I was back on the highway before I thought about how that experience would be entirely different depending on who was in my position. Many people would have had to wait until a garage could fix their car, and wait on getting parts from a dealer. While they were waiting, the mechanics would sense their desperation and find other parts that “must” be replaced immediately.

With some tools in the car, some knowledge of basic auto systems, and the willingness to try to fix it, a days-long ordeal can merely be a bump in an otherwise smooth road.

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